Florida Issues Warning For Brain-Eating Amoeba After Two Children Become Infected By Naegleria Fowleri

By Josh Lieberman on August 16, 2013 1:06 PM EDT

swimming hole
The Florida Department of Health has issued a warning over a deadly brain-eating amoeba that lurks in warm freshwater. (Photo: Flickr: austinevan)

The Florida Department of Health has issued a warning over the deadly brain-eating amoeba that has infected two children, 12-year-olds Zachary Reyna in Florida and Kali Hardig in Arkansas.

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The brain-eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, can be found in any warm body of fresh water as well as in swimming pools without proper chlorination, and usually enters the body through the nose. The infection that the brain-eating amoeba can cause, primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), destroys brain tissue and cells, causing swelling in the brain and, in 99 percent of cases, death.

"The effects of PAM on the individuals who contract the amoeba are tragic," said Interim State Epidemiologist Carina Blackmore in the official warning (pdf). "We want to remind Floridians to be wary when swimming, jumping or diving in fresh water when water temperatures are high and water levels are low. If you are partaking in recreational swimming activities during this time, please take necessary precautions and remind your family and friends to do the same."

The necessary precautions recommended by the Florida Department of Health include holding your nose closed or using nose clips while swimming; avoiding freshwater activities altogether when the water temperature is high and the water level is low; and avoiding stirring up the sediment of shallow, warm freshwater.

There have only been a small number of documented cases involving the brain-eating amoeba. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the brain-eating amoeba infected 31 people in the years 2003 to 2012.

Only three people have ever survived PAM, one of whom is Kali Hardig, the Arkansas girl who is believed to have contracted the brain-eating amoeba at a now-closed water park. Doctors put Kali on anti-fungal medications which were used on the two other PAM survivors in 1978 and 2003. They also used an experimental drug called miltefosine, a medication developed for breast cancer that has been shown to kill amoeba in lab experiments. Miltefosine is not approved yet by the Food and Drug Adminstration, so had to be provided by the CDC under a "Investigational New Drug" request.

Kali's doctors also cooled her body down to reduce brain swelling. Therapeutic hypothermia is sometimes used in cases of cardiac arrest, stroke and brain trauma, among others.

The combination of the drugs and therapeutic hypothermia seem to have done the trick, as Kali is now completely free of the parasite.

In Florida, the doctors of Zachary Reyna have also been given permission by the CDC to use the experimental miltefosine on him, but it isn't known whether he's taken the drug yet. Zachary's family monitored the news of Kali Hardig's progress, encouraged by her becoming the third person to ever survive Naegleria fowleri.

"He can be number four," said Zachary's brother Brandon Villarreal, "that's what we're hoping for, for him to be number four."

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